I got in a little bit of a friendly dust up yesterday on Twitter when I asked, “As I watch colleagues embark on the 2011 #jobmarket I have to wonder, why on earth does it take humanities departments 6+ months to hire?”
- Because the pool of applicants is large;
- Because the hiring process follows the academic calendar;
- Because faculty members are busy people and search committee activities must be scheduled around other commitments;
- Because we take time to read candidates’ scholarship as well as their resumes;
- Because tenure track decisions have long term consequences;
- Because hiring depends on building consensus across a department.
All of these reasons make sense to me. I’m just not sure they answer my question. They seem more like answers to the question of “how” it takes so long to hire rather than “why” it takes so long to hire.
(At this point, I should disclose that I have never formally participated in a tenure-track search process either as a candidate or a search committee member, so some of what follows may be totally naive and off base. If so, I apologize. But I have watched the process for years from a short distance as a friend of both candidates and committee members. I’m also a research faculty member and manager who does a fair bit of hiring himself, so if nothing else, I may have a valuable near outsider’s perspective to contribute. I hope so.)
Why, for example, does the hiring process have to follow the academic calendar? Couldn’t we shorten it to six weeks in December and January or schedule it around spring break or do it in the summer (paid, of course)? The answer comes back that we can’t shorten the process because the pool of applicants is so large. But there is a circularity to this line of thinking. If departments didn’t all hire on the same schedule, if there were multiple (necessarily shorter) hiring seasons, then some people would already know in September that they had a job and wouldn’t enter the November round at all. Still others could skip both the summer and winter seasons and wait until spring. Interview scheduling and campus visits would be made much easier as well. It seems obvious that if there wasn’t just *one* hiring season, there wouldn’t be so many candidates in any given season. This in turn would put paid—to some extent at least—to reasons and three and four. If the season was shorter and there weren’t so many candidates, it wouldn’t take up so much committee member time and energy either in meetings or in reading.
There are other questions one might ask; each of these reasons has problems when you dig a little deeper. For example, there are lots of busy people in lots of important jobs who juggle serving on hiring committees with normal work commitments. All small and medium sized businesses do their own hiring, and even at big companies with professional human resources departments, executives are heavily involved in making important hiring decisions. How do they manage the process so it doesn’t overwhelm their other work? Likewise, lots of hiring decisions in lots of fields have major, long term consequences—civil engineering comes to mind—but I’m guessing those fields usually manage to hire people in less than six months. At the very least they don’t stack the deck against a quick hire in advance, setting things up so that it can never take less than five or six months. What are they doing to insure they’re making safe, yet speedier hiring decisions?
Mainly, if we are going to accept any of these practices—including reading everyone’s scholarship and building consensus across departments—as valid answers to the “why” question rather than the “how” question, we first need to know whether they actually lead to better hiring decisions. I’m not sure we know with any certainty that they do. How many applicants’ scholarship do we really have to read to narrow it down to two or three? Is trying to get the bulk of the department membership on board an exercise in futility that causes more bad blood than it avoids?
Finding answers to these questions may lead us right back to where we started, but they’re worth asking on the chance that they could help us do a better job of placing the right people in the right jobs at lower cost and with fewer headaches. When every year I hear the same complaints from all sides about the academic hiring process, “the way we’ve always done it” just doesn’t satisfy as an answer.